Tom Chick's crazyman ranting about difficulty levels and game designers not doing their jobs

I like choice, too! But I also like game developers who do their job. Part of that job is offering choices with incentive.

For instance, imagine you’re playing D&D. The dungeonmaster says, “Okay, you walk into a room and you see five kobolds. What do you do?” Would you say “I set all my attack rolls to +2, I halve the kobolds’ hit points, and I turn off encumbrance”? Because that’s what you’re doing when the folks who make a game don’t do their job, and they expect you to do it for them.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the Pathfinder: Kingmaker thread, but I have zero desire to play this game if 1) the developers expect me to tune the difficulty level of their game, and 2) it takes 15 hours to get to the kingdom stuff that supposedly makes this game unique. Ugh. I might as well just jump into a JRPG.


A post was merged into an existing topic: Pathfinder: Kingmaker

In a game like this, how do you propose to make the game playable for people of different skill levels without difficulty settings? I agree that it can be annoying if the difficulty jumps all over the place so I feel like I need to continually change the settings for each battle.

It could be cool for most games to have some type of leaderboard where you get bonus score for difficulty, that would provide some incentive for higher difficulties. Some people are motivated by achievements, and there are achievements for playing at different difficulty levels. I just don’t understand what your expectations are for a game like this (regarding difficulty levels).

Classic difficulty settings (easy, medium, hard), each individually tuned. I’m in 100% agreement with @tomchick on this. I realize it’s a rather irrational stance, because fine tuning the options is objectively a good thing, but on my first runs through RPGs I like to follow the developer’s vision and get the satisfaction from conquering the game on a particular difficulty mode, and having options that either add or remove from set difficulty takes away some of the satisfaction. It’s a little like setting arbitrary limits for yourself while you play, for example no reloads, even though the game doesn’t feature any systems where you could actually impose that limit. It feels artificial, and just rubs me the wrong way.

I think one problem is the variety of different characters and builds make it hard to tune every encounter. An encounter that is easy if you’re a wizard might be difficult if you have a melee fighter and vice-versa. That can partly be taken care of with companions, but as I noted upthread, I kicked the Inquisitor out of my group after talking with her about her backstory and discovering exactly how evil she was. So there’s really no guarantee what group members are available.

Ah, glad to hear it can be relatively early in the process. And as I mentioned before, I will definitely be curious to try this after it’s gotten through the obligatory patching process.

Well, this might sound like a cop-out, but I’m not a game developer, so I don’t have a solution. But believe it or not, I am pretty easy to mollify on this issue! Even just an achievement for playing on a specific difficulty level. Alternatively, jigger the power curve to reward harder difficulty levels with faster progression or something. And if you want to cater to people who just want to climb around your dialogue trees without actually playing your combat system, give them what they want, but firewall that crap from those of us who are actually interested in experiencing the game design.

But when I’m fighting a tough battle and I know one of the possible solutions is to select “easy” from a drop-down menu in the options screen, the developers have just thrown up their hands and said, “fuck it”.


As a GM, I’ve occasionally said things like “It’s clear that this combat isn’t that interesting, and that you are going to win it. Are you interested in playing it out, or should we go around the table and you each tell me one cool way you kill a skeleton?”. I would consider a suggestion like that from the players. But, you know, that was in a pathfinder adventure path with some dumb filler encounters that the designer didn’t think through, so I think it just shows that the source material has similar problems.

I think Chris has the right of it, although to me it’s not bug, but a feature; tweaking encounters on the fly is part of the art of being a good gamemaster. In such an open game, it’s really easy for players to go totally off the rails and you can wind up throwing out half of your planned campaign let alone adjust a battle. However, you need to do this in order to keep your players engaged.

Of course, Tom is right; the developers are typically the gamemasters and if they’re pawning off this part of it to the player, it can kill immersion and therefore investment in playing. On the flipside, I’ve played Pathfinder/D&D/what not with tons of people over the years. A sizable majority had opinions on whether something was too hard or too easy and chimed in on how they’d prefer it, and that’s cool. However, most never took up the mantle of GM and so having this sitting out there may serve as a little bit of wish fulfillment.

What specifically is it you think the devs should have done here? Or that they failed to do? Is your complaint that settings can be adjusted after the game has begun? Is it that there are multiple settings you can adjust? Is it that there are even multiple difficulty settings at all? Did you want them to say “play on hard and you will eventually get more and better +4 longswords?” You seem to use this complaint all the time and I feel like I can’t always discern any actual meaning when you use it now. Its very boring.

No, they’re not the gamemasters. A game master is present and part of the game. The developers are not present and part of the game when you play Kingmaker. Anyone who says “they’re supposed to be the gamemasters” is being obtuse. They can’t be and this is pretty obvious. And I don’t think this is the crux of Tom’s complaint although what do I know.

That makes this a very different experience than playing the AP on the tabletop, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. Additionally, someone said it had to be RTWP, and the table top is a turn-based game. I don’t want to get into an argument about the two approaches or anything, but the decision was made and here we are. The developers had to make a game where the GM couldn’t be present and they had to shoehorn an entire TB ruleset into a different system.

A straight port isn’t actually possible. It wouldn’t be possible if they had done a TB game (although it would be closer).

Did I wander into R&P by accident?

Anyway, I was trying to take into account the viewership here and figured I didn’t need to connect the dots. However, I was mistaken:

In Pathfinder, a GM does the following:

  • Create the setting
  • Present the setting
  • Present story hooks
  • Describe the interactions
  • Describe results of player and NPC actions

In a computer game, developers…

  • Create the setting
  • Create an AI and a UI to:
    ** Present the setting
    ** Present story hooks
    ** Describe the interactions
    ** Describe results of player and NPC actions

I apologize deeply to all for not spelling that out before. I will now force myself to play tic tac toe for my penance.

I don’t know? Who is fighting? I figuratively don’t even.

But then you did it anyway, which was probably helpful for someone so yay. I assure you I understood them.

The most important part of DMing is not creation/prep/etc (although these are important). It’s not improvisational skills, although these are important. It’s not rules knowledge, although that also is important. It’s being present and being part of a collaborative gaming effort. Yes, there are bad GM’s that don’t make it collaborative, or worse are not fully collaborating with all parties but that’s why they are bad GMs.

That’s why there are games where people play strictly by the rules, ones where they don’t, games that a very narrative driven, games that are very player decision driven, games that are about murder hobos muder hobo-iing their way across the however many seas, games that yadda yadda yadda I feel confident everyone understands this.

The Kingmaker devs are just the scenario designers. It’s an important role but it’s only part of what DMing is. And they can’t provide the rest by definition of making a single player CRPG.

I answered that question upthread in my response to @robc04. The bottom line is difficulty levels need incentives. If they are instead just a way to get around gameplay challenges, you have made the difficulty setting more important than the game design.

Oof. Way to stick it to me, Mr. Dog. But c’mon, you have to admit my little D&D reenactment was a bit of a thrill. I even included dialogue.


I’ll disagree. Challenge can be plenty of incentive on it’s own.

That said, making “normal/core” actually mean “silly hard” is… not a great idea.

Basically if you play “Core rules” you’re fighting super-powered enemies. If you want to play “Normal difficulty” everything is “weaker” and you take 20% less damage. Of course those numbers are meaningless because random mooks are swinging for like 2d8+17 or some insane horseshit. So the “weaker” enemies are really normal and the “80% damage” is really normal, but they decided to word it all goofy and generally annoy everyone in the process.

What an absurd comment. No, they’re not physically present, but they sure are part of the game. How do you think that kobold who has 12 hit points* and a leather jerkin showed up? You think God put him there?

Game designers and dungeonmasters create interactive experiences based on the dynamics of enjoyable frustration. A lot of the satisfaction people get from these experiences is overcoming challenges using systems that represent combat, magic, subterfuge, and difficulty settings on the options screen. Oops, wait, I didn’t mean to include that last one, but I’ve been playing too many games where that’s the case. My bad.


*May not be actual stats. Please check with your gamemaster.

I will agree that this game is hard to perfectly balance, esp. for a smaller team.

Pathfinder is inherently unbalanced. The rules they literally based their whole design around are–I will charitably say–“imperfect.” Certain classes with certain gear and Feats are absolute monsters at the sorts of challenges parties typically face. The same class with different gear or a different set of Feats might be woefully gimped in an almost hilarious fashion. But the same Feats that fuck them over would turn another unusual race/class combo into its own form of a nightmare.

A significant part of the “joy” of Pathfinder (for those that find any amount of joy in it at all) versus any other PnP RPG is delving deep into these miles-long lists of Feats and Spells and Traits and Disadvantages and Sub-Races and Class-Archetypes and Alternate Class Bonuses and Magical Items and Animal Companions in search of the perfect combination to break the game all in their own special way.

Ergo, and I genuinely do believe this, @tomchick, to adapt the game without making every effort to enable that part of the experience would be to fundamentally miss the point. Especially when letting a computer handle all the number-crunching and Feat-interaction checking and randomization and adding and subtracting carves out a significant part of the game that isn’t very much fun for anyone but really passionate accountants and actuaries.

The downside there is that the game devs cannot reasonably predict what any given party is bringing to the table, especially as the game marches on and companions are found and discarded and mercs are hired and designed and levels are accrued and gear is bought and sold. The ever-branching possibility space of even this noticeably limited implementation of the Pathfinder ruleset is mind-boggling.

And remember, a character might be woefully under-equipped for challenge A but absurdly over-prepared for challenge B. Hell, this is one of the great horrors of balancing the game ad-hoc as a live GM: how do you sufficiently challenge the +5 Adamantine Full Plated Two-Handed Fighter with a +5 Keen Speed Bastard Sword who is routinely swinging for 400+ damage per strike (and can do multiple a turn) while sitting behind 40 AC and a few hundred HP. . . without throwing out a monster that instantaneously murders the Wizard if he accidentally wanders in front of it with his 25 AC and 150 HP before remembering to, I dunno, Stop Time itself, or whatever.

So, thing is, live, in play, you’re keeping track of character abilities live. You’re giving your players advice. You’ve probably got at least one or two rules-lawyers in the group who edge the party away from woefully suboptimal choices. You’re parceling out loot the characters beg for when they do real good. You’re fudging rolls that are just absolute bullshit (cuz the system produces a lot of bullshit rolls). You’re designing encounters–half a dozen or more enemies, all of whom with full spell lists and gear lists and feat lists, plus the terrain their in, and the existing magical effects there, and the unusual laws of physics of the plane it’s located in, and the surrounding area for a few miles out for the really big effects–by hand, each week, to challenge the party specifically set before you, drawing from those same miles-long lists of powers and spells and builds and classes and races and monsters.

I genuinely do not think that anything less than a AAA team budget could possibly hope to try to implement the Pathfinder ruleset, give players the freedom to use it as they see fit, and design an adaptive AI capable of rejiggering entire campaign arcs on the fly to be appropriately challenging for the kinds of parties hundreds of thousands of potential players will throw at them like so many monkeys on so many typewriters, banging out some crazed variant of Shakespeare wherein Romeo casts Sleep on himself and Juliet rolls 37 on her Knowledge (Arcana) check to recognize the result and the two of them don’t wind up suiciding into oblivion and instead live a long and happy life as dual immortal wizards in the gleaming crystalline castle in an entire universe they designed by hand for fun one afternoon.

For better or for worse, designing a game that genuinely makes an effort to implement Pathfinder 1E with as much accuracy as possible (and let’s face it, the backers of this title more or less demanded precisely that, and it is, in fact, more or less the game’s entire appeal as compared to something like Pillars of Eternity or Torment, is going to leave you in a position where the best-fit possible balance of almost any encounter is something along the lines of “Oh fuck I dunno let’s just try three bears and pray.” Pray–pray the game devs didn’t look to Pathfinder’s own encounter design principles, centered on the woefully inadequate Challenge Rating system that tells you that a Bristle Boar that most Barbarians can one-shot is functionally equivalent to the Shadow, a monster that routinely TPKs full parties of well-prepared PCs, to achieve their balance, cuz that shit is fundamentally wack, yo.

Now, to another side of this argument, I do think that the designers didn’t do their jobs insofar as they tuned the gameplay to be conquered by tabletop-obsessives with years of system mastery under their belts who’ve had two dozen hilariously broken builds bubbling under the surface of their geeky subconsciouses ever since the game was first announced.

Therefore, the “Normal” difficulty–much less the “accurate to game rules as written” difficulty that exists halfway between Normal and Challenging–has some wildly incongruous difficulty swings even off of the otherwise fairly reasonable “Fuck it let’s shoot for X and pray” difficulty level the devs designed the core game around, to the point that people who didn’t even accidentally gimp their parties into absolute shit are occasionally gonna get nudged toward encounters that a fairly average party designed by a newb to the system will just be utterly unable to face down.

I do think that those bewildering blips are going to get smoothed out over the next month or two as non-Pathfinder-obsessed everyday buyers start dropping comments and reviews and the devs break out of their Early Access bubble of neckbearded hyper munchkins. At that point, Normal will be. . . fine.

Unless you decide to build a Fighter with 8 STR, 8 DEX, 8 CON, 18 INT, 18 WIS, and 14 CHA and Stealthy as your first level Feat, of course.

Then you’re just back to being fucked by the unfortunate truth that Owlbear were not equipped to design the world’s first General Purpose Artificial Intelligence and therefore set us on the path toward Terminator.

P.S. - If you read that enormity of a post and walk away wondering, But why would anyone try to design a fun computer game that can be played by anyone but obsessive grognards using a system like that? you may be asking a far more valuable question than “But why didn’t the game devs just do their jobs and balance the game right?” ;-)

PoE 1 and 2 does difficulty settings the best, because the harder difficulties change the encounter itself, like adding a few more enemies and replacing some with more powerful variants. This is brilliant to me - you can have not just a more tactically satisfying encounter but a different encounter on hard. And, for the crazies, there is even a difficulty that takes Hard and gives enemies bonuses and such. Meanwhile, Normal difficulty is probably just right for like 60% of the player base. I think it’s handled well, and wish P:K would have done something like that.

I have the game and I dallied with it a bit. Honestly it does appear a bit obtuse in its mechanics. But it is one of those games that while you are at work you are thinking “hey I could try that idea…” and I am pretty sure that’s what its going for.

Oh sry not to interrupt the Great Battle Of Difficulty Settings. I always set it to the middle and the only time I get grumpy is when there are 4 difficulty settings and no middle.

Participating is not interrupting! And, yeah, four options are the worst because then you have to commit to one side of the bar or the other.

But actually, I like it when there are the regular three difficulties – easy, normal, hard – and a fourth difficulty called something like “insane” that you have to unlock by playing on hard! Ooh, incentive! Let’s do this! Of course, this only works in games built to be played more than once.

Unfortunately, many (most?) game designers agree with you.

So, uh, yeah, Pathfinder! Sorry for the derail, everyone. That’s what happens when you put a soap box in front of me. I can’t very well NOT stand on it and hold forth!